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Dean’s blog: Aerospace learning, research, and engagement: Mission Accomplished

Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm speaks with the honorable Charles F. Bolden, Jr.
Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm speaks with the honorable Charles F. Bolden, Jr. 

Last week was an exciting one for our college in the areas of empowering aerospace exploration and highlighting our many partnerships. We supported two activities that offered Mason students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community access to information about past, current, and future possibilities for learning and research on space related topics – the Woman in Motion documentary screening and Mason Space Day.

The STEM Accelerator and Women Leaders in STEM co-sponsored an on-campus screening of the Woman in Motion documentary by Todd Thompson. It tells the story of Nichelle Nichols and her contribution to America’s space program. You may recognize Nichols from her role as Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer on the popular television original series, Star Trek. The show was the first to feature such diversity on a leadership team and incorporated storylines and issues in a trailblazing manner within the fabric of the program. 

Looking back to that time in 1977, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reportedly struggled to recruit scientists, engineers, and astronauts for their then new Space Shuttle Program. Nichols posed the question, “Where are my people?” and embarked on a campaign to recruit the first Black, Latino, and Asian men and women to fly in space.

Nichols traveled around the country to recruit BIPOC and women as astronauts. She was also encouraged to maintain visibility in her on-air role by notable advocates including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who suggested the efforts of this cultural icon and champion of diversity changed NASA forever. 

Fast forward to last Sunday when I had the pleasure to connect with many of the 2,200+ registrants at the second annual Mason Space Day, our highly successful program of lectures, exhibitor interactions, hands-on activities, and tours to promote our research and educational activities in space sciences, our Mason Observatory Mason Observatory, and our summer Interstellar Dreams Space Center camp program. See the slide show of space firsts highlighted during the event.

Two of this year’s Mason Space Day keynote speakers were quite popular—Michelle Thaller, Assistant Director of Science at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Retired Marine Corps Major General and astronaut Charles Frank Bolden Jr., who serve as NASA’s Administrator from July 2009 until January 2017.

Thaller, who has had a distinguished career in public outreach and science communication and served at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. on organization-wide strategic communications, shared insights learned to date from the James Webb Telescope program. She inspired attendees and even engaged with the group of Girl Scouts from the local community who volunteered to help guide Observatory tours during the event. 

And Bolden, who has flown and commanded numerous NASA space missions, engaged one of the event’s largest audiences, while also speaking in a private session with Mason students and faculty. Both certainly inspired the next generation of space explorers. 

About thirty exhibitors provided a day long offering of activities and program discussions. The Department of Physics and Astronomy was certainly very well represented and, demonstrating the multidisciplinary nature of this sector, we also had a strong showing of support from folks in our Departments of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Computational and Data Sciences, and Geography and Geoinformation Science. 

Thank you all for your efforts to bring these outreach opportunities. Especially the leadership and support from Gabriele Belle, Rob Parks, Peter Plavchan, Paul So, Rebecca Jones, and our development and marketing and communications teams. 

We broadly and inclusively demonstrated Mason’s role and the opportunities we offer in the realm of space exploration and scientific learning: Mission Accomplished.